Jane Lubchenco’s announcement today that she will step down as NOAA Administrator in February has already catalyzed an outpouring of gratitude and sadness among ecologists (and beyond). The sadness is understandable – we had one of “our own” in a very influential role, and not just any one of our own. By any measure, Jane is one of the most extraordinary scientific leaders of our time. So of course it hurts to see her move on.
But it’s the thanks that should define our collective response. She poured her heart and soul into an exceptionally tough job, and made a real – and I suspect lasting – difference. She led with vision and strength despite daunting professional obstacles and unwarranted personal attacks (see, for example, the types of comments that occasionally appear on her facebook page). She’s done that her entire career, and the “on-paper” stats and accolades are easy to find. From her transformative leadership at ESA, AAAS and ICSU, to her foundational roles in Compass and the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, to countless other examples (including her own research), Jane has changed our science in broadly meaningful ways that are hard to overstate.
What I think of most today, though, is not the on-paper stuff. It’s her personal approach. I first met Jane 22 years ago; as a mid-stage grad student, I drew the lucky straw of getting to take her to the airport after a campus seminar. She was already a star in the field, and like many students in that situation, I felt intimidated at the prospects of a prolonged one-on-one conversation. What the hell might I have to say that would interest her?
Here’s the thing: she made me feel as though everything I had to say was interesting. It’s a trait people ascribe to Bill Clinton and other influential leaders: no matter how busy they might be, they can make you feel as though nothing else matters but your conversation. That was my experience with Jane in that first meeting, and it had a significant influence on both my scientific confidence and my approach to science in general. And it wasn’t an anomaly. Jane’s been like that in every subsequent conversation we’ve had – even ones that have occurred since she hooked up to the NOAA fire hose.
Jane has stressed for years that effective leadership takes training and practice, and if you do those things, almost anyone can get much better at it. I agree 100%. But I also think that for people like Jane, the too-rare ability to truly listen and focus – regardless of the swirling winds – is innate, and is fundamental to their leadership successes. Put another way, they give a damn right down to their core about big goals and the people around them, and it’s the latter that makes the former more achievable.
Thank you Jane.